views from the gods

saints and sinners of the stage and screen

Wonderful Town
Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre
25th October 2016

★★★★☆

Lizzie Wofford and Francesca Benton-Stage as Ruth and Eileen

Photography © David Ovenden

There aren't many Londoners who don't know what it's like to chase dreams and find themselves stuck renting a shoebox in a dodgy part of the city - it's almost a rite of passage. Despite Wonderful Town's age, obscurity and American setting, the general concept of moving to a big town and hoping for the best makes Joseph Fields and Jerome Chodorov's book very relatable. Chalk and cheese sisters Ruth (Lizzie Wofford) and Eileen (Francesca Benton-Stage) are wandering around Christopher Street when they find themselves talked into renting a grotty flat from slumlord Appopolous (Nicholas Chiappetta) next to nice but strange co-habiting neighbours Wreck (Simon Burr) and Helen (Francesca Pim). And with that, their adventure begins.

The sibling dynamic between Ruth and Eileen is captured well, with the two female protagonists very different in personality and nonetheless visibly very close. No matter how many times Eileen makes her older, more sensible sister sigh or roll her eyes, there's no jealousy or resentment. It's clear that Ruth has long since made her peace with being the invisible one, watching Baker (Aneurin Pascoe), Frank (Hugo Joss Catton), Chick Clark (Ashley Holman) and the entire local police force run around after her sister as if it's the most normal thing in the world. Whilst there are times that we suspect Eileen is at least a little aware of her effect on men and is exploiting her looks to her own advantage in a slightly cheap and manipulative manner, director Tim McArthur reinforces out her innocence when she finally has a heart to heart with her sister about the real object of her affections.

Wofford delivers a stellar acting performance however her harmonies are sometimes drowned out, especially in her duets of Ohio and Ohio Reprise with Benton-Stage. In her solo One Hundred Easy Ways to Lose a Man, she demonstrates a much better range and vocal ability, indicating that perhaps some of the other songs just aren't as suited to her. Art imitates life with the other sister generally outshining her. The usual orchestra is reduced to merely one piano with musical director Aaron Clingham tinkling away at the ivories on his own, adding a more intimate feel to the show. Clingham as usual gives a flawless performance, supporting the performers with his perfect timing and doing Leonard Bernstein proud.

Plastering the entire set with newspaper is an effective if unambitious way for designer Ben Hathaway to emphasise the poor living conditions of all the characters. It works especially with the block of slum flats, less so with the police station. The newspapers also help bring the story to New York thanks to detail of the printed headlines. Keeping it simple allows for more space to be opened up, with every extra square inch joyously used by choreographer Ian Pyle. An ensemble of Brazilian sailors conga their way through the space and the ensemble twirl and dip an arm's length away from the audience. The venue for once doesn't feel cramped.

There are quite a few catchy and well-known tunes, coupled with a real sense of fun. Although the male characters aren't fully developed, the main story arc nonetheless has a reasonably satisfying conclusion. Wonderful Town is light, disposable and well-crafted - certainly worth the trip to Walthamstow.

Wonderful Town opened on 12th October and runs until 30th October 2016 at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre.

Nearest tube station: Walthamstow Central (Victoria)



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